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On June 16, 2001, Health Canada proposed a new labelling format for nutritional facts and health claims on Canadian-made food products. These regulations are intended to update our 13-year-old nutrition labelling laws..

On June 16, 2001, Health Canada proposed a new labelling format for nutritional facts and health claims on Canadian-made food products. These regulations are intended to update our 13-year-old nutrition labelling laws. While nutrition experts applaud the move, they also warn that consumers will need to be educated on how to read the labels.

Basically, food producers will be forced to adopt a standard "Nutrition Facts panel" consisting of 13 core nutrients, such as fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates (including fibre and sugars), protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. Thirty optional elements may also be listed in the panel, including calories from total, saturated and trans fat, as well as various vitamins and minerals. Still other nutrients not on the "additional permitted elements" list may be mentioned, but only outside of the nutrition panel.

It is interesting to note that trans fats which are hydrogenated and linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity won't be listed as a separate entry, but will instead remain hidden in the general fat category. That means that unless a food producer willingly lists trans fats as a separate item, it will be impossible for shoppers to know how many trans fats they're actually eating.

For the first time in Canada, scientifically supported messages about how diet affects health will also appear on food labels. (The USA made a similar move at the beginning of this year.) Health Canada has approved five generic health claims dealing with heart disease, osteoporosis, tooth decay, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. An example food label could state, "A healthy diet containing calcium and vitamin D may help prevent osteoporosis. (Name of the food) contains adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D."

The format will be bilingual, but the overall presentation will look quite similar to that found on American food labels. However, US products won't be sold in Canada unless their labels conform to our own national standards. Based on the questions posed by stakeholders following a recent Health Canada information session, there are still a lot of issues to be resolved, primarily with the actual application and enforcement of these regulations in the field. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for enforcing the regulations and now must revise their current policies or develop new compliance policies. The CFIA may need increased resources to work on these changes.

The consultation period for these draft regulations ended mid-September. The final regulations will be implemented over a two-year period for large food manufacturers, and a three-year period for smaller ones. As there is no exemption from nutrition labelling for small businesses, the upcoming regulations may present an economic hardship for some companies. In addition, the impact of re-labelling (on seasonal and small-volume imported commodities) didn't appear to have been considered by the government. The Canadian Health Food Association will continue to discuss the impact of these proposals with its membership and monitor their implementation as they become a reality.

Let's hope that shoppers will soon be able to make healthier food choices.

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